INTERVIEW: Alexander Clarkson on the 1980 coup and the Turkish-German diaspora

INTERVIEW: Alexander Clarkson on the 1980 coup and the Turkish-German diaspora

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Alexander Clarkson on the 1980 coup and the Turkish-German diaspora

Recent turbulence between Turkey and the U.S. is just the latest addition to a catalogue of problems dogging Ankara’s ties with the West. Before the U.S., headlines were all about broiling tension between Turkey and Germany, particularly before Germany’s federal elections in September.

Alexander Clarkson is a lecturer at Kings College London who specializes in diaspora communities in Europe, including Turkish and Kurdish-origin Germans. In a recent long article he studied the long shadow of Turkey’s 1980 military coup among the Turkey-origin diaspora in Germany, arguing that the coup had an impact that remains relevant today.

Clarkson spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about his work, changes in Turkish and Kurdish nationalist ideology in the diaspora, the rising importance of Islamism after the coup, and the bitter state of ties between Turkey and Germany today. The conversation has been edited for concision.

Turks first started moving to Germany in the 1960s. Sketch out the situation among the diaspora community in Germany in the run-up to the 1980 coup.

This was a particular formative period in the politics of the Turkish and Kurdish diaspora communities. By 1980 it was an increasingly established and entrenched community. Turks started arriving in significant numbers in West Germany in the 1960 and 1961. But throughout the 1960s and 70s it wasn't yet clear whether it was going to be a permanent thing. The basic assumptions of the guest-worker system in the Federal Republic of Germany was based on a set of treaties between the West German government and various labor exporting states, of which Turkey was one. There was a shared assumption between migrants and the receiving state that immigration was temporary, that you were literally a "guest" there for a limited period of time before returning home. So particularly between 1961 to the early 1970s, there's no sense within the Turkish and Kurdish communities that it's worth expending much effort building up a diaspora infrastructure in Germany, because the assumption was that everyone in this system was going to return to Turkey at some point. 

The key date changing this was the 1973 abandonment of the guest-worker system. By then there was an increase in unemployment in West Germany and there was growing pressure on the SPD government to get rid of this system, to reduce immigrant numbers. So they canceled the system. Turks and Kurds in Germany then had to choose whether they would go back to Turkey or stay in Germany. Many opted to go back, but those who decided to stay after 1973 decide to stay permanently. And they began to build for the long term, bringing over families, children, wives and relatives over. In that process you see a shift from temporary, low-level political activism to something much more extensive. That intersects with the political situation in Turkey itself, and by the mid-1970s and late 70s there was growing violence within diaspora groups in Germany. This build-up explodes in 1980 in response to the coup, which has a massive effect on the Turkish and Kurdish communities in West Germany. Suddenly this big community becomes a concern for the Turkish state as a haven for many of the groups that it is trying to crack down on. That leads to a further surge in politicization and conflict within the diaspora.

You talk about four main constituencies: The Turkish left, far-right Turkish nationalists, Islamist groups, and Kurdish nationalists. All of these found immigrant communities in Europe a safe haven from which to organize. Start by talking about the left and the far-right, because these already had roots in the diaspora long before the 1980 coup.

During the 1960s and 70s you had this mass importation of labor from various Turkish regions into Germany into a particular industrial environment. And that intersected with two moments of left-wing radicalization - one in West Germany and one in Turkey. In West Germany there was 1968, the moment of the student movement, which also has an impact on trade union politics. At the same time there was a radicalization in Turkey. Within the “gecekondu” urban slum communities there was an increasingly assertive left-wing movement trying to recruit people in a period of massive urbanization and industrialization in Turkey. So many of the Turks and Kurds going to Germany had their initiation into left-wing politics in the Turkish context where they came from.  

But with the various waves of migration from Turkey into Germany you also begin to see clashes between different groups of migrants. As in Turkey, the nationalist right also began to organize. Islamist currents were there in the 1970s but they were not as influential as people tend to assume today. The environment was much more dominated by the left, the radical right and various Kurdish groups. The Islamicization of the Turkish community only really began to gather momentum in the 1980s, with the strong support of the Turkish state after the September 1980 coup. The Turkish left was basically crushed after the coup, but it had a very hospitable environment in Germany. Various radical Turkish left-wing groups had strong organizations in Europe, so Europe became a kind of safe haven, which leads to a further surge of politicization in the Turkish diaspora in Germany.

The same goes for the radical right and the [Nationalist Movement Party] MHP. MHP leader Alparslan Türkeş was already touring West Germany in 1978 and 1979, meeting senior German politicians through the shared notion of anti-Communism. Speaking to industrialists worried about left-wing radicalization, Türkeş tried to sell the MHP and its Grey Wolves as people who could create discipline and order in German factories. 

It was after the coup that Kurdish nationalism really took hold in Europe. And just like in Turkey, the PKK brutally eliminated rival Kurdish organizations in Europe. 

The roots of this were also in the 1970s. Various Kurdish organizations were also discovering the diaspora as a space to organize and recruit. They realized they could find allies among West Europeans - people from the moderate to the radical left - who could help lobby for their cause. The PKK became very good at building a highly effective lobby within the West European left throughout the 1980s. 

I've been given extensive access to West German police and security service files on a regional and national level. Often the biggest files are criminal cases involving the PKK. Particularly from 1983 to around 1991 the PKK systematically spied out and physically eliminated – ie. killed - its rivals in the Kurdish community. The extent to which the West German left largely ignored this is fascinating. It largely accepted the PKK's narrative of the insurgency in Turkey. And by around 1991 or 1992 rival groups to the PKK in the Kurdish community gave up in despair. They abandoned attempts to engage with the West German left because the PKK had proven so effective at finding a political language matching the language of the German left. It constantly compared the PKK's struggle with struggles that are deeply familiar to the German left, making references to National Socialism and fascism. The figures running the PKK operation in Germany are well-attuned to the structure and particular language of German left-wing discourse. 

So the PKK gained hegemony over the Kurdish community in Germany, with the partial - witting or unwitting - support of the West German left, which saw the PKK as a revolutionary, transformative organization able to do things that parts of the West German left wished they could do too. That is a legacy you can see to this day. I grew up in Germany in the late 80s, 90s and early 2000s, and the PKK was something you encountered if you were a young spotty teenager getting engaged in left-wing politics. You encountered them in the street in protests. They were very good at putting across their message in both abstract and every-day terms.

 As in Turkey, it wasn’t until relatively late that Islamist networks started to gain momentum in the diaspora in Germany. But also like in Turkey there was tolerance and even encouragement for Islamist movements among the authorities in Germany. This resembles the trajectory in Turkey, where Islamists were a major beneficiary of the conservative Turkish-Islamic synthesis pushed by the authorities after the coup.

This is also something shared with other immigrant groups. During the Cold War the assumptions about how to handle immigrant communities was very different to assumptions you find later. Particularly in the 1960s through to the 1980s, Islamist groups were considered "safer." There was still a degree of latent hostility to them but they were considered safer than the left. In West Germany they were also considered safer than the MHP, which reminded many Germans of various National Socialist precedents. So many German officials would rather have a [Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs] Diyanet-affiliated organization handling the local Turkish community than one of the far-left groups. 

That begins to shift in the 1980s. Of course the Turkish-Islamic synthesis in Turkey was important, but the Turkish-German community wasn’t operating in a vacuum: It was also exposed to what was happening in Arab communities and there was also growing interest in what was happening in Afghanistan. But throughout the 1980s Islamist organizations were promoted by Turkish diplomats in cities across Germany. Of course, neither Germany nor Turkey could anticipate that a party like the AKP would end up taking over this infrastructure and reorient it to an even more clearly state-backed Islamist agenda, but all these institutions that scare the German government today because they've been captured by the AKP to promote a particular agenda, were established and nurtured with the help of the German government through Turkish organizations like the Diyanet in the 1980s. There's a kind of "blowback" dynamic that you can see.

Bringing us up to the present day, one of the big themes in the run up to the recent German election was the bitter tension between Turkey and Germany on a number of questions. At one point President Erdoğan called on Turkish-origin German citizens to “not vote for any of the major parties,” describing them as the “enemies of Turkey.” Do you think this is a temporary problem or does it signify something deeper?

It is deep and long term in three ways. It's important to start with the Turkish-German community itself. Whoever is advising Erdoğan, you get the impression that the top echelons of the AKP are convinced that Turkish-Germans are still primarily Turkish in the way that people in Turkey are Turkish. But that's a profound misreading of this community. Firstly, the community is enormous - anywhere between 2.4 to 2.9 million people, which is more than some EU states. It's also a highly diverse community politically and ideologically. It's a community in which ironically the left is much stronger than it is in Turkey itself. 

The AKP has managed to divide the Turkish-German community among itself. There are all kinds of fault-lines in German society when it comes to Turkey, but one of the main ones is within Turkish-Germans. You could clearly see this in the April 2017 executive presidential system referendum result among Turkish voters in Germany. There’s a very false figure thrown around that 60 percent of Turkish-Germans supported the AKP side; in reality out of 2.9 million people only 1.5 million were eligible to vote, only 700,000 voted and of that 700,000 only 400,000 voted on the side of the AKP, while the rest voted against. So among politicized Turkish-Germans there is clearly a high degree of polarization that Erdoğan is promoting and worsening. He's alienating significant numbers of the Turkish-German community from Turkey. He's trying to present himself as the protector of Turkish-Germans but in reality among the half of the community that is hostile to him he's putting growing numbers off the Turkish state. 

Among the half that's loyal to him, it's very difficult to estimate how deep the loyalty goes. How much are Turkish-Germans willing to sacrifice for the Turkish state? There's also a limit to the extent to which Erdoğan can mobilize people for himself. He might actually be overplaying his hand among the loyalist community. There's an organization called the Union of European-Turkish Democrats (UETD), which is an AKP affiliate in Germany, and while it can bring people out for major political events and protests, it is only a very limited number of people and often they are bussed in for events. So it's an open question whether Erdoğan, by mobilizing those elements of the community that support him now, is overplaying his hand and trying to get them to do too much for too little outcome.

We should also reflect on the extent to which the attitude of the German state towards Turkish-German citizens has been transformed. One of the main points of conflict between the Turkish government and the German state recently has been the way the Turkish government has arrested or mistreated Turkish-Germans who are citizens of Germany, such as journalists Deniz Yücel and Meşale Tolu. I think there was a miscalculation by the Turkish state. It assumed that because these people were ethnically Turkish, the German government wouldn't care. But we've seen a massive sea change in the attitude of the German state. Even just a decade or two ago the German state would have been very cagey about protecting people who weren't ethnically German, but under this current government it's quite clear that the German security services see Turkish-German citizens as citizens of Germany, as equals. I think it was a surprise to the AKP when it started arresting all these Turkish-Germans and the German government said: "You're arresting our citizens and this is a huge problem." That shows the extent to which the Turkish government has misread big social shifts in German society towards its immigrant population. 

What about this new AKP-linked German party that has just started taking part in elections in Germany, the Alliance of German Democrats (A-DD)?

A: Every now and then some organization tries to set up a party based on the Turkish political system. It's actually electorally mystifying because the great number of people who supported the AKP are either purely Turkish citizens or they don't vote in German elections. There is a weird dichotomy in terms of electoral behavior, where you have a lot of Turkish-Germans who will go out in Germany to vote for parties of the center-left but won't go out to vote in Turkish elections. It's pretty certain that this party the AKP has set up is going to fail electorally. There is simply no constituency that's going to go out and vote for it in any great number. Any smart Turkish diplomat - if they're still in a job - in a Turkish consulate in Germany would have told this to the AKP. I suspect the AKP's organization, the UETD, is well aware of this anyway.

The only rational explanation I have for this move is that it's a way of ensuring that the German government can't ban affiliated organizations to the AKP. Until now the UETD was in German law a "registered association," and legally it’s quite easy for the German government to deem an association or club as a risk to the constitution and ban it. But under German law it's very difficult to ban a political party because of the National Socialist precedent. The NPD, which is a clearly neo-Nazi party, is still around because it's so difficult to ban parties in Germany. So the only rational explanation I can find for this move is that it is just for the AKP to make sure it is able to keep its infrastructure going because it has a political party, which cannot be banned by an irate German state after it has done something provocative again. The only other explanation is that it's just an ego trip.

William Armstrong, Armenia,